The Devil and the First Church of Job’s Friends

The Philippines gets bombarded with all sorts of theories as to what is “Christian” when it comes to psychology, pastoral care, and counseling. In truth, anybody from the West (or East) with the ability to make words with their mouth eventually comes to the Philippines to share their lack of insight with others. During the first term at seminary here, our group (Bukal Life Care) held a short seminar reviewing the different models of counseling and pastoral care as it relates to the interaction of psychology and theology.

But here are three writings/reflections that got me thinking on the issue of contextualization when it comes to pastoral care/healing in missions.

A. One article was “Is Mental Illness Actually Biblical?” by Stephen Altrogge. The first paragraph describes the situation he was responding to.

“I recently read two articles by a well-known Christian author who is also closely connected to a Christian counseling foundation. The articles essentially argued that mental illness was a social construct created by secular doctors and psychiatrists, and therefore is not biblical.

So, when a person is depressed, he is really just experiencing sadness, and to try to treat it medically is to short circuit the power of God. When a person is anxious, she is really just experiencing worry, and to treat it medically is a secular answer to a spiritual problem.”

Altrogge challenged this view, but made the case somewhat differently than what I am familiar with. The argument I am familiar with focuses on verses that show that not all problems described in the Bible are diagnosed as spiritual problems. That is fine… but Altrogge starts from (what I consider to be) the Biblical doctrine of the total depravity of man. The name is poor because it suggests that we are totally evil in everything we do or think. However, the doctrine basically means that we are broken. With the Fall, man is broken as a holistic being. As such man is broken physically, broken mentally, broken emotionally, broken socially, broken spiritually…. broken and living in a broken world.

If that premise is sound… then it is quite reasonable to assume that a major reason we have physical problems is that we are broken. It is not necessarily that we are physically perfect except for sins, curses, demons, and such. Could we be sick because of sin? I am sure it is possible… but why would one assume that this is the cause in every case? If we have emotional problems… perhaps it is because we are emotionally broken… the problem may not be external to us. If we may be broken in many ways, not just spiritually, then it is possible that spiritualizing every problem we face may be misdiagnosis and mis-treatment.

B. A second set of articles came from a discussion on LinkedIn regarding suicide of pastors. A writer described going to a pastors’ conference and the issue came up about emotional problems. The general consensus of the pastors at the conference was that bad stuff emotionally and mentally were due to demons.

Of course, that got me thinking… does it matter? After all, a lot of different treatments may work. If a person is depressed, medicine may help, but so may counseling, or behavioral modification. Perhaps treating for demons may also work. However, again, externalizing our problems (it is not about us, but the devil made us do it) may direct us away from the proper treatment.

But before we get to that, there is a third thing.

C. My son has atopic dermatitis. It is fairly stabilized, but can certainly be annoying and a bit embarrassing. So many want to give advice. Sometimes the advice is helpful. Sometimes perhaps not. One recently told him that he may have a curse on him. The person comes from a church that utilizes a training program called EGR (Encounter God Retreat). One of its innovations is that it teaches “generational bondage.” Essentially, a Christian may have a curse on him or her if an ancestor has done something bad. Sometimes, if one has a problem (especially a visible problem) the last place one wants to be is at church… a place chock full of well-meaning but ignorant“Job’s friends.”

I would like to think that most readers here would know that generational curses (not talking about family systems stuff… but an actual divinely-dictated curse) is not biblical. Ezekiel chapter 18 makes that clear, Jeremiah repeats the same idea, and the New Testament lacks the very concept (although we know that at least some people in the time of Jesus still believed in such things… thus Jesus had to assure the people that a man blind from birth did not have such a curse).

So how does one respond? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Be double—openminded. In certain circles, a naturalist paradigm dictates. In other circles a more spiritualist paradigm dominates. Being double-openminded means being open to the idea that either paradigm may be right… or wrong. Far too many from the West give little value to the spiritualistic paradigm. However, some go to the other extreme and seem to embrace a christoPAGANISM where the spiritualistic paradigm is uncritically accepted.

  2. Be theologically centered. Generational bondage is a theologically/biblically flawed belief. One doesn’t really need to be particularly openminded in this. The Bible does describe demons as truly existing, sentient, and malevolent. Rejecting out of hand demons is theologically flawed. However, so is blaming everything bad on demons. Seeing the world as a dualistic battleground (who is going to win???) between God and Satan is Biblically flawed, and should have no place in Christian ministry either. Missionaries and pastoral care providers need to be theologically grounded and centered.

  3. There may be a healthy pragmatic understanding that goes beyond reality. Externalizing all problems as demons and curses is not necessarily healthy for individuals who need to accept a level of responsibility for their problems. On the other extreme, removing all morality from problems (problems becoming simply diseases or syndromes) is also not healthy. Developing a balanced understanding of problems in people’s lives that still finds moral self-responsiblity as an important ingredient in the formula is good. What does that mean? Work towards what is healthy when one doesn’t know what else is true.

  4. Don’t be Job’s friends. Job’s friends “KNEW” what was wrong with Job. But they were wrong. Not knowing is not a sin… but declaring what is so when it isn’t is a dangerous game. A friend of mine showed up for his first day at a Bible school. He sneezed and one of the staff told him that he hasn’t been praying enough. He decided that he may be at the wrong school. A lady with “the gift of discernment” (allegedly) came to Baguio to tell people what sins they have. Seeing one teenage boy, she wrote “SEX” on his forehead. For teenage boys, “discerning” sex on his mind as a problem is hardly a risky guess. But is all of this the type of church we want to be in? A church full of Job’s friends? More importantly, does God desire us to all be part of the “First Church of Job’s Friends”?

Ultimately, this brings us back to “counter-cultural contextualization.” Contextualization challenges the culture, but from within… not from outside. As such, the outsider does not impose change, but utilizes the Word of God and the counter-cultural elements/thoughts within the culture to challenge what needs to change (while also supporting what is good within the culture). That means in pastoral care we don’t attack the culture (nor its opposite) but we are open to challenging presumptions and allowing an environment for reframing.

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